The Night It Rained Toads

The Essays of Frances Williams ~ July, 1961

Published Jul 9th 2017 in Wildlife, Toads, Animal Behavior

Rain began falling about midnight, May 18.  Soon water was pouring down the streets, rushing into the numerous dry lakebeds scattered over the City of Midland.  By 4 a.m., residents of homes near the lakes could hear another sound above the dripping rain: a chorus of hundreds of toads singing in the lakes.  Like birds, each species of toad has a different song: high musical trills, low groaning trills, shrill metallic trills, explosive snores and bleats, loud piercing whistles.  Near the lake, the din of a large chorus of toads is nerve shattering, but at a distance the sound is soothing and musical, one of the sweetest sounds in nature.

Since last summer, these thousands of toads have been scattered over the city, living in the well-watered gardens of flower-loving citizens.    On summer nights toads pay their rent by devouring hundreds of bugs, but during the long, hot, dry days they burrow deeply into the damp soil.  In winter, they dig even deeper into their holes and hibernate, barely alive, until warm summer rains come again.    Toads which have buried themselves in the lake bed are the first to emerge as the lake begins filling.  As the rule toads begin to sing; other toads awaking from their long sleep in nearby areas hear the chorus and with short, quick hops travel toward the lake.  The more toads that gather, the louder the tumult, until all the toads within a mile or more are on their way to the lake.    The chorus continues unbroken the first 24 hours, but sings only at night for the duration of its stay at the Lake (about a week).

Although most residents of Midland called these denizens of the lakes "frogs", toads are easy to tell from frogs.   Toads have dry, warty skins, and they move with little short hops.   Frogs have moist, smooth skins and they move with long leaps.   Toads have short hind legs, frogs have long hind legs.    Toads survive in arid regions where it does not rain for years, but frogs must live in or near permanent water.

I have a wash tub “lily pond”.  On that rainy day night when the toads began traveling toward the nearby lake, three pairs of Spadefoot toads stopped at the Lily Pond. By morning, gelatinous rosary-like egg—strings were wrapped around the water lily steins.    (One female toad lays several thousand eggs. Four days later, hundreds of minute, translucent tadpoles were clinging to the lily pads. In another day, they were swimming vigorously about, eating the algae that grows on the sides of the tub and on the plants.  a week After the eggs were laid,  the pollywogs were nibbling on bugs which fell in the water.  There was not enough natural food for the 300 or more tadpoles, so they were given lettuce and cat food.

By June 4, many of the tadpoles showed the first external signs of becoming toads: rounded buds of flesh protruded on each side where the tail joined the body. These daily grew backwards, joints appeared, then feet, and soon the toads were using their newly formed hind legs along with their tail in swimming.  Simultaneously with these outward growths, internal changes took place: lungs began to develop, and gills began to fail.  The tadpoles made frequent trips to the surface of the water to gulp air.  A week after the first pollywogs developed hind legs, their front pair of legs appeared.  Instead of growing slowly, these legs had completely formed under the skin, then had broken through the ill coverings, ready for use.  Their heads had changed also: their tiny round mouths had grown large and wide, their eyes had become large and elevated.  Except for their tails, they were toads.  They stopped eating, and gradually absorbed their tails.  Just three weeks after the eggs were laid, about a third of the toadlets were ready to leave the lily pond.

The most unexpected thing about the metamorphosis of tadpoles into toads was the great variation in their rate of growth. Many toadlets were ready to leave the lily pond in three weeks, but as The Phalarope goes to press, there are still about 50 tadpoles in the pond -which have developed only to the hind leg stage.  Since all the eggs were laid within a 12- hour period, it could be expected that all the toadlets would be ready to leave the pond in a similar period.  The only explanation that presents itself is that there was insufficient food available, slowing the growth of some tadpoles.